As of this writing, the Oregon Ducks are still 7.5 point favorites over the Colorado Buffaloes. That number opened at 12, which raised quite a few eyebrows. Since, the slide downwards has opened those eyes even wider. Either public money swooped in and has been circling like a giant vulture around a carcass or Vegas really loves the Buffs.
Whatever the cause, that precipitous drop likely sent more than a few bettors scrambling to their Bovada accounts to get action the other way on the Ducks. If I were in control of such things, I'd plunk this matchup down right at 14.5, and even that may still be too low. The Ducks are wounded and their fatal flaws have been exposed, but all of that talent and speed didn't just disappear after Utah's 42-point plundering of Autzen. While Oregon will have certainly made adjustments on both sides of the ball since Saturday, there are a few key areas that the Buffs can press an advantage in.
Oregon's structural issues defensively are no longer a well-disguised secret. The departure of several key defenders, including defensive backs Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Troy Hill, has left the Duck defense inexperienced and susceptible to confusion, particularly when defending the pass. Thus Colorado's upset bid begins (and possibly ends) with the play of Sefo Liufau.
Playing with shoulder soreness after suffering a separation two weeks ago, the Buffalo signal caller hasn't yet made the leap that many were expecting this season. He's cut down on turnovers, his only pick coming at Hawai'i, and has stayed largely upright thanks to an effective offensive line but hasn't looked fully comfortable to this point. Aside from two perfectly placed deep touchdown balls (three if you count Shay Fields' drop) against Colorado State, Liufau has looked tentative to throw it long and has often missed seeing open targets downfield.
"I just think that I left a lot of throws out there. I think it's obvious," said Liufau of his performance following the 48-0 win over Nicholls State. "It is pretty frustrating overall, but it's just something to work on and get better for next week."
It's a fair bet that offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren will take shots deep on the young Oregon secondary, and Sefo will be asked to get the ball downfield early. Connecting on a long hit or two with any one of Fields, Devin Ross, or Bryce Bobo in the first half would do wonders for his confidence.
In turn, that would help the ground game get rolling, an area where Liufau himself could also be capable of inflicting damage. Sefo has been fairly effective while scrambling and even running on designed reads, to this point he's rushed for 4.33 yards per carry. Last weekend, Oregon's shaken defense gave up 100 yards to Ute quarterback Travis Wilson on just six carries, accounting for a large chunk of the 273 total yards allowed on the ground. While Liufau is nowhere near the runner Wilson is, there may be a few critical second and third down conversions in the offing if a play breaks down and he's forced to create on his own.
The Buffs' chances at victory also largely hinge on the turnover ratio. Sefo and his backs and receivers will need to continue protecting the ball well, something that the Ducks were unable to accomplish last Saturday night. Don Pellum's formerly opportunistic defensive unit, currently ranked 89th in the nation in defensive S&P+ and allowing 5.7 yards per play, failed to force a Utah turnover and found out that it can no longer rely on its offense to quickly answer and stun the opposition as Scott Frost's side gave the ball away to the Utes three times.
Freshly invigorated under defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, the Buffalo defense has already nabbed seven interceptions, more than double their total for all of last season and owns a +5 turnover ratio. Similar to Oregon, Colorado possesses a bend-don't-break outfit that relies on those turnovers and stops in the red zone. In order to have success on Saturday night, the Buffalo secondary will need to find a way to turn Oregon over more than once, and just as crucially wrap up in the open field. Although Byron Marshall is out, the Buffs will still have to contend with Bralon Addison and a swift Duck receiving corps. Missed tackles will prove ruinous in this game.
Oregon has now officially found out just how much it misses Heisman winner (and one of the best college quarterbacks of all time) Marcus Mariota. The Ducks no longer have a game-changing quarterback on the roster, at least at the moment. It now looks unlikely that Vernon Adams will play in Boulder, due to both his broken finger and concerns about sickle cell trait, but it's currently questionable how effective he can be even when healthy. That means Colorado will see Jeff Lockie, he of the 139-yard two-interception performance against Utah.
Lockie did provide a shot of energy upon entering the game, but the momentum quickly faded. The Utes held Oregon to 178 total yards passing on 14 completions, good for just 5.1 yards per catch. The explosiveness we're used to seeing from the Ducks' offense has not been there this season, and it's largely due to quarterback play. Colorado's defensive line and secondary will need to play fast and opportunistically, the turnovers are there to be had.
For all of Oregon's faults and weaknesses, they are still extremely dangerous. Royce Freeman remains one of the premier backs in this conference and the roster is littered with speed. The Duck tailbacks are averaging 6.8 yards per carry, good enough to overwhelm many a team. In past matchups, Colorado was quickly undone by those signature gashing runs through and around the defense, by all types of ball carrier. I expect Freeman to get his, but following in a line of fast and agile dual-threats Lockie may be the least mobile quarterback to captain the Duck ship during this run of dominance. If CU's defensive front can apply pressure while the secondary stays home, mistakes can be created.
A Colorado win will require the most complete game this program has put together in years. While they still do not possess the team speed to go man-for-man against Oregon, the secret's out and the Ducks are reeling on both sides of the ball. Oregon will no doubt walk into Folsom angry and with something to prove, but their secondary remains ripe for the picking and their quarterback play leaves much to be desired. If CU can make it happen through the air they'll be able to score with the Ducks and if they can set the edge and pressure Lockie they'll do enough defensively. All large "ifs", sure, but this team is capable and more importantly they seem to finally believe they're capable.
To claim the program's biggest victory in 5 years and prove they're ready to be a factor in the Pac-12 the Buffaloes will only need to win the turnover battle, throw the ball effectively and explosively, and wrap up defensively. Simple as that, right?